Net Zero Building: The New Frontier for Building Energy Management

by | Sep 15, 2015

I recently attended the Green Sports Alliance Summit (GSA) in Chicago, Illinois. I came home convinced that there is enough knowhow and technology available for the business community in North America, if not globally, to embrace and achieve the goal of net zero building (NZB). For those of you not familiar with the term, an NZB is a building that produces as much energy as it consumes. Indeed, the potential exists within our lifetime to achieve the Third Industrial Revolution — a theory originally proposed by Jeremy Rifkin, a renowned economist and author. His vision was that in the near future buildings will become net producers of renewable energy on a distributed grid system.

At the GSA conference, I was privileged to participate in a panel with well-versed industry leaders on this topic. There were representatives from the vendor community who are supplying the critical elements of the technical fabric needed to enable the foundation for NZB. There were also members of the building users’ community, who are taking pioneering steps to include NZB in their sustainability plans.

In a very short window, I learned a lot and quickly became convinced that NZB is the right objective for all the owners and operators of buildings. Here are some of the key learning’s from that panel discussion:

  1. Energy consumption in buildings represents over 40 percent of North American energy consumption. So undoubtedly it is a big opportunity from a cost improvement perspective. Perhaps more so, as a target for green house gas emissions.
  2. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) recommends NZB as a primary objective for global businesses. They provided a simple roadmap to achieve it:
  • Eliminate energy waste.
  • Increase the “intelligent readiness” of buildings through needed infrastructure upgrades. This will eliminate more waste and prepare the building for the introduction of renewable integration.
  • Finally, introduce renewables for micro generation.
  1. In its roadmap, the LBNL makes it very clear that the sequencing of the above steps is as important as the steps themselves. The first two steps will likely delivers on 60 percent to 80 percent of the NZB objective and the remaining balance with the introduction of renewable energy. In other words, there are still HUGE opportunities for energy waste elimination and efficiencies to be tapped before deploying renewables. Otherwise, there is a distinct possibility to create an out of sequence and sizing plan for the renewable energy project. Overbuilds just for contractual obligations sake may impede the efficiency objectives.
  2. The costs of nascent renewables are improving quickly. The technology is approaching competitive pricing with traditional energy sources in a market driven economy. So in many parts of the country, we are beginning to see locally sourced green energy deployment capabilities that can compete, straight up with highly subsidized fossil fuel sources.

Perhaps before we rest too long on our laurels with green building certifications, we should get our heads and hearts around and first focus on a national strategy to achieve NZB within the next decade. In Canada, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) recently recognized and demonstrated leadership in the importance of dealing with the health-related affects of GHG emissions and climate change, and the resulting need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels as quickly as we can. So I think it is time for building owners and their supply chain of engineering and energy consultants to show leadership and declare NZB as their clear objective. Let’s put a stake in the ground and battle to first minimize and over time, reverse the impacts of global climate change.

Recently retired, Brock Sansom had been the CEO of SHIFT Energy for several years. Prior to joining SHIFT, he held a series of roles spanning 30 years during one of the most dynamic and exciting periods in the telecom and new media industry. Even though taking a permanent leave from payroll, Brock is still very active in supporting communities in their stride toward energy efficiency and environmental wellbeing. While not volunteering, he loves a good piece of music (especially anything on vinyl), wine, women (his wife, daughters and granddaughters) and golf.

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